Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog



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Friday, September 29, 2006

Q. I have an original (stop laughing) idea, a bible, pilot and second episode completed, as well as outlines for a few more episodes. I applied to pitch at Banff and I plan to apply to NSI for the next round, but that is months away.

In the meantime, I have been thinking of shooting the show myself, and taking the "homegrown" route. You know, guy writes show, shoots it himself, generates local buzz, local buzz turns to national buzz, network takes note and picks it up and begins pay handsomely, guy becomes national celebrity, then international celebrity, and shortly thereafter Knight of the British Empire. I haven't thought too much about the details, but that is the general progression.

Anyway, as a start, what do you think of approaching a place like my local Roger's Cable station and proposing it to them? Is that even a remote possibility?
Do individual stations fund stuff on their own?
I mean proposing that the station develop it as its own program. The station (volunteers, for example) and I would get it ready to shoot, then shoot it using the station's equipment, edit, etc. The station can air the finished product, and own partial rights.

I know some local stations have a history of developing and airing their own material, I mean other than the typical "call-in" shows that are entirely studio-based. I figure its a matter of getting buy-in from the right person, and it probably helps to find sponsors to cover some costs as well.
They do?
Well feel free to correct me if you know more than I do in this area, but CJOH here in Ottawa was responsible for "You Can't Do That On Television" back in the 80s. It was eventually picked up by Nickelodeon and became a moderate success for a decade or more after it originally aired.

Rogers Television in Ottawa launched Tom Green's career (good or bad). He started at the station doing a live "variety" show in the mid-90s. It was an enormous hit (relatively speaking) here in town.

Also, Trailer Park Boys is not a great example - I know there was a movie first - but its progression as a show followed the same general route. Independently produced, locally shot, generated some interest and then was seen by the right pair of eyes.
Well, there you go. Apparently stations produce their own stuff.

If you can get something produced, by all means. I would attempt to dissuade anyone from using their own money to finance a spec pilot episode, as it is likely a waste of money. TV networks like to develop stuff; they usually don't buy stuff as is, except from other networks. But if you can get someone else to pay for it, by all means. OPM, baby!

Needless to say, it needs to be a supercheap concept, but comedy is rarely about the production values.

Has anyone else heard about this route to the screen?

UPDATE: DMc has a very fine post about rolling your own (tape, that is). And I'm in touch with a young woman at a magnet school in Texas who seems to do nothing BUT shoot her own scripts. With classmates and stuff. She will probably be in a position to hire you in 10-15 years.

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Q. I was working on a script for a low budget horror movie but stopped when a thematically similar big budget movie came out. My story was very, very different in tone and execution, but there when I went to see this movie, there were even some similar scenes
About the same time that Steven Spielberg came out with a movie about rampaging therapod dinosaurs, Roger Corman came out with a movie about, uh, rampaging therapod dinosaurs. When asked about the similarities in the movie premises, Corman said: "Steven Spielberg is an honorable man. I do not for a moment imagine that he would steal my idea."

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

[POLITICS]
The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.
US Constitution, Article 1, Section 9
Congress just passed a bill abolishing the right of habeas corpus for, well, pretty much anyone the President says is an enemy combatant. The last time habeas corpus was suspended was during the Civil War.

I'm reading Will Ferguson's charming and fascinating book Hitching Rides with Buddha. He met a man who was a Japanese soldier in Saipan during the American invasion of that island. The Japanese had been told the Americans would perform horrible atrocities against them. So vast numbers of them committed suicide. Men, women and children. This particular man wept as he recounted how the Americans had, in fact, taken very good care of their prisoners.

We don't need to respect the Geneva Convention to convince the enemy to respect our troops. Al Qaeda doesn't respect anything. But as ought to be obvious by now, we're in a guerrilla war, and guerrilla wars are won by ideas and culture, not mere destruction of enemy combatants.

The way we win the battle for hearts and minds is where the Muslim in the street knows that we don't torture. He knows we stand for an ideal. An ideal he can see the sense of, and possibly long for. I read a book by retired US Army interrogator Chris Mackey called The Interrogators; he said that one of his prisoners finally broke when he realized he was not going to be tortured. And that, therefore, we were better than he had been told.

I know what we're supposed to stand for, but I don't see much evidence of it. An innocent Canadian is sent by America to be tortured in Syria. And we're supposed to believe all the guys at Guantanamo are guilty? When they haven't had a trial?

We stand for freedom and democracy, except when the generals in Thailand topple the prime minister. Then, not a peep.

How do you fight a war of culture and ideas when you don't stand by your own culture and ideals?

We are strong enough to fight a few thousand medieval fanatics without throwing out the Constitution. But more importantly, we will never defeat the fanatics by throwing out the Constitution.

Or to paraphrase Ben Franklin: "They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety. shall get neither liberty nor safety."

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Q. A screenwriter whose blog I read is apparently writing a screenplay about a guy and his couch that sounds a lot like a public radio story I heard. Should I warn the screenwriter? How do you think he will take it? Is there any advice I can give him about making his story different?
Another boy meets couch, boy loses couch, boy gets couch story? I love it.

You can certainly let him know what the story on PRI was about. He might be amused and/or intrigued. It's probably not necessarily to warn the screenwriter, as such, since ideas are not copyrightable, and the details are almost certainly different.

More broadly, whatever story you're telling, there is almost certainly another movie/tv episode/novel plot/play/poem/news item out there with the same basic story. So long as you are not, in fact, stealing the details (sequence of events, characters, dialogue), you're safe legally. And so long as you are writing the characters with a great sense of reality to them -- whether from your heart, or personal observation, or rich imagination -- you're safe creatively.

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Lisa doesn't like to watch dark dramas. This is putting a serious crimp in my TV watching this season. They're all pretty much dark premises: Kidnapped, Lost, Standoff, Jericho, Three Moons over Milford, and even those shows whose premises would not necessarily need to be dark, like Heroes, are pretty dark. We bailed on Grey's for the opposite sin (it just got silly) and I hear Gilmore Girls without the Palladinos isn't cutting it.

Are there any good dramas out there where no one is in regular danger of being killed?

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You're not supposed to resolve a story by pulling the resolution out of your hat. "Deus ex machina," or "god out of the machine," referred originally to the bad-Greek-playwright habit of making a mess of the plot, then resolving it by flying a god out of the wings to fix everything. (They didn't invent the arch, but they did figure out how to rig an actor onto a crane.)

In my new screenplay I am exactly ending a story line by sheer coincidence. A character longs for the perfect couch, which he has a picture of. At the end of the movie, he's going to realize that it's been there, all along, covered up in fabric, at the office where he works.

Here's how I plan to get away with it: by telling the audience in advance that I'm going to do it. Characters are going to remark how uncomfortable the couch in the office is. We're going to see the outline of the couch under the fabric. The audience is going to think: ohhhh, I see. That's the couch he longs for!

By drawing attention to the thing, the thing becomes an expectation. And an expectation won't feel like a coincidence.

This morning, there was an accident at the bottom of my street. It was an accident we'd been expecting for a long time -- trucks park too close to the intersection, making it a blind intersection, and there's no stop sign. We knew someone was going to get blindsided sooner or later down there.

Coincidence in a screenplay is not automatically a bad thing. Many premises are essentially coincidences that set the plot in motion -- Harry and Sally sharing a ride from Chicago to New York. Later on in the screenplay, a coincidence can still work, provided we get to see the coincidence building up. If we're rooting for it to happen or not happen, we won't feel that it comes out of nowhere.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Here's J. Kelly Nestruck's profile of Yours Truly in the National Post's national division today...


National Post
27 Sep 2006

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Q. Is the process for getting a staff writing gig significantly different in Canada?
Not really. Fewer people write spec scripts (though they should); more write spec pilots. You want to have an agent even though many agents don't really push their clients as much as they ought to. (Mine does.) The CFC (Canadian Film Centre) is even more crucial than going to UCLA or USC. There are fewer jobs as writer's assistants. But all in all, it's the same process. Write two kickass scripts. Get an agent. Have your agent get your scripts out there. Work every connection you've got.
Q. You had a comics proposal you were working on?
Yes, and I'm still working on it. In my copious leisure time. Seriously, whenever I run out of TV and feature stuff to write, I do another draft of it, and inflict it on Mr. Diggle, who is kindly offering excellent notes.
Q. You advise, not infrequently, that the symptom of not caring much about the characters is often caused by the problem of the stakes not being high enough, which certainly makes sense. But raising the stakes too high can get wearing on the audience.
Yes, you don't want every episode to be about the destruction of the world. The best stakes on TV are usually personal, not global. Those can be "will his dad live?" or "will his dad show up for the soccer game?" So long as the main character cares deeply about the stakes, they're high enough. Note that in comedy, the stakes can be ridiculous so long as the main character cares deeply about them. The stakes can be that the hero really, really wants an ice cold beer. Wasn't the whole plot of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle about two stoners trying to obtain some burgers?
Q. How did Firefly turn four act structure on its head?
I haven't watched recently enough to be specific, but my impression was that in a number of episodes, just as you were sure where the plot was going, whoops! It changed course. Risky but rewarding writing, I felt.

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Watched episode two of Studio 60 last night. Did you?

I'm still hoping this show will kick in for me. Lisa enjoyed it, so there's hope. But I have some basic problems with it.

It's a dramatic show about a comedy show. It feels like it either needs to be funnier, or have higher stakes. It is hard to get too worked up about whether a sketch comedy show's showrunner can come up with a cold open or not. So higher stakes seem unlikely.

So to me it feels like it wants to be funnier. But it's not funny. It's witty. Snappy banter is not comedy. Wit comes from words and their rhythms. Comedy comes from derailment. There's only one derailment in all of "The Cold Open." (Can you guess which it is?)

I am also lacking the sense of accuracy that made The West Wing such a joy. I have trouble believing that Matt and Danny are brilliant comedy people. They don't seem nearly crazy enough. (Ken, back me up on this?) Even when Matt stops wearing that dumb suit and tie, he's ... well gosh, he never says anything outrageous enough to make anyone laugh. Is Aaron Sorkin this humorless in person?

Comedy writers make you laugh. Comedy writing is a painful process punctuated by hysterical laughter. I would say at least ninety percent of the comedy writers I know are seriously funny in person. How do you think they got to be comedy writers?

And what is the hero's goal and obstacle? He wants a cold open; he can't think of one. Mmm, that's a toughie to dramatize. Unless the whole episode was full of false starts -- where you got to see all the Bad Ideas appear, fly, and crash -- all you have is a guy staring at a clock.

And the cold open itself ... a patter song? Oh, come on. Compare it with, say, Al Gore's appearance on SNL where he was talking about the past six years of his presidency, with rampaging glaciers attacking Wisconsin. That was unexpected, and funny. The patter song was witty ... but not, actually, that funny.

In a way, I feel like the past two episodes are prime examples of What Not To Do in writing your pilot. Sorkin carries it off to a certain extent because he's a great writer and he's got a great cast and a great director. But kids, I'm not sure he's got a show yet.

I bet you Ken Levine could come up with a better cold open for that situation inside of a day.

Now why am I being so critical? Oh, because The West Wing was one of my favorite shows ever. Because it avoided all the mistakes Sorkin is making, I feel, on Studio 60. Because I really, really want to watch a good show. And this show seems so misconceived I don't see how it's going to recover.

Your thoughts?

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Monday, September 25, 2006

I have a meeting in a few weeks with people who can greenlight development on one of my projects. I've got a pitch document that intrigues them. But, they ask, what will the show actually look like?

A pitch document or a pitch bible can tell people about your show, but it's a descriptive document. It doesn't prove the concept. What I'm working on now is breaking down a few episodes so I can show the Powers that Greenlight what my show is. I've got the pilot broken down into five acts. (Five act drama is all the rage now.) Now I'm working on a "center cut" episode.

Of course, I'd like to get paid to write these episodes, but if you love something, you go that extra mile.

Sometimes you write the next step without even planning to show it. You do it so that you know the concept will work. If something's wrong, writing the next step will often bring the problems into view. You can fix them without anyone knowing there was anything wrong.

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Piers Beckley has thoughtfully found and linked to five show bibles in this handy post. Four are produced; one is the "Star Trek Reboot" pitch. Check'em out. It's more fun than working, anyway.

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J. Kelly Nestruck has a nice article about Yours Truly in today's Toronto edition of the National Post and online. It's not in the Montreal edition; might be there on Wednesday. It's called "The Script Doctor Is In."

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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Brian Clark of Copyblogger has a post about how to make your entrepreneurial business run, and interestingly, he uses the table of contents from Crafty Screenwriting to outline his ideas.

Always nice to be quoted. And it confirms my believe that so much of life is about stories and the telling of them. When you're starting a business, it's about the story you can tell investors, and clients, and buyers. In politics, it's about the story you're telling your voters and supporters.

We tell stories in different media. But the essentials remain the same. I always believed there was a lot in Crafty Screenwriting that's applicable to writing a novel. But it's pretty cool to hear that someone thinks it's useful in starting a business.

Via Julien. Thanks Julien!

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Friday, September 22, 2006

For those of you beginning to suspect I never like anything on TV, I did like the JERICHO pilot quite a bit.

/* SPOILERS */

I particularly enjoyed watching it because I was brought onto a show with a similar premise to consult on the pilot. It was interesting to see which choices the writers made and compare them with the choices our writers made. Do you blow up the world at the first act out? Second act out? Or third act out?

I think the JERICHO writers made the right decision to get the ball rolling at the first act out -- until the town is cut off from the world and there's a mushroom cloud on the horizon, all you have is a show about a small town, and the audience is getting impatient. You can blow up the world later in the show if you foreshadow enough. But the show is really about how people deal with the unthinkable. Showing them thinking about it for an act or two will just feel strained. I think you want your show to start being about what it's going to be about as soon as you possibly can.

Of course you could blow up the world in the teaser. But we need to see who these people were in their old lives so we understand what they become in their unwilling new life.

THREE MOONS OVER MILFORD starts with the Moon already split into three pieces, and people acting crazy. (Lovably crazy, of course, because it's ABC Family.) That's another way to go -- avoid the premise pilot entirely. You miss the opportunity for a really thrilling inciting incident, of course. If THREE MOONS had gone to the SF channel, no way they would have missed showing an asteroid smash the moon into bits. But those extreme situations wouldn't be appropriate for a family audience, anyway. Do you want your kid worrying about the Moon splitting in three because she's seen it happen on TV?

Anyway, it was exciting to see how an entirely different crowd of people had addressed a very similar concept, and to see how they handled the same (yep, they had a Black Man Who Knows More Than Anyone Else too, and they went out on the whole town gathered together in confusion and worry too) and how they handled it differently...

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This blog mysteriously vanished from its URL. So in an attempt to bring it back, I am posting the following:
Anal nathrach, uthvas bethod, dochyell dienvay.
There. That ought to do it.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

[POLITICS] In Slate, Jacob Weisberg talks about how
A growing number of Republicans are desperately hoping that their party will ... get its head handed back on a plate.
The Democrats, strangely, want the same thing. But
As a matter of political logic, both sides cannot be right. Party politics being a zero-sum affair, game theory dictates that if Republicans are better off losing the next election, Democrats cannot be better off winning it.
But here's the thing. Politics is not a zero sum game, something that media people tend to forget when they cover government as if it were a horse race. It would be entirely possible for Republicans who feel their party has gone off the rails and no longer stands for its own political philosophy to believe a bit of defeat would do the party, and the country, good. At the same time, Democrats might believe (as parties generally do) that their philosophy would be better for the country. So they both might want the Democrats to win.

Before you flame me, I'm not blogging here about whether or not the Republicans have betrayed their own principles. I'm talking about how the entire article fails to mention once that people join political parties in order to do good. I remember thinking when Giuliani ran against Dinkins in New York that it would probably do New York, and the Democratic Party in New York, quite a bit of good to lose the mayor's race. The party had got corrupt from being in power too long. Giuliani would not have won in New York if quite a few Democrats hadn't agreed.

It does not help when the media treat all politics as a game. It's not a game. It's about people's lives. Is there no way to remind them of that?

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

I recently read a script with a lot of weirdness in it. You know, girl's sister disappears into an Otherworld, and girl follows, but is beset by various weirdos saying Mystical Things.

It is easy to write weird stuff and put it up on screen. Film is immediate and realistic. So oddness onscreen creates an immediate tension: when the images and dialog don't follow logical lines, you are still forced to accept them as happening in a way that you might not be in a comic or in an animated film.

But that only goes so far. I felt this Otherworld lacked an Otherworldly logic. The characters were spouting portentous gibberish. But they were only spouting it. In other words they were doing things only for the weird effect they would have on the audience, and the heroine. I felt it would have been much stronger if the characters were saying what they were saying because they wanted something from the heroine. In other words, talking for their own motivated character reasons. I think that adds a level of richness. Giving the weird its own logic makes it weirder. If all you have is weird juxtapositions of nonsensical stuff, the brain fails to detect patterns in it, and eventually brushes it off. It may be a romp like Head or Twin Peaks, but a romp gets tiresome after a while if there's no point to it. If your juxtapositions of stuff actually have a hidden logic, the brain will start to detect the patterns in it. The more it struggles, the more a feeling you create of true mystery.

I think one reason Alice in Wonderland holds interest is because the characters in it are all obeying their own logic. The Red Queen reacts to Alice, not as if she was written there to blow Alice's mind, but as a monarch in her own court might react to the inexplicable appearance of a terribly tall stranger: "Off with her head!"

In a drama, you always want to step into the shoes of your secondary characters to make sure their logic tracks. If they are hindering the hero, are they doing it for good reasons? If they're helping, are they getting something out of it?

It's easy to forget to do this when you're writing fantasy or science fiction. Who really knows what alien robots or unicorns might or might not say? But it's just as important. A robot spouting gibberish is rarely as compelling an antagonist as a robot trying to fit your hero into its own strange context. A unicorn who has to be persuaded, convinced, or paid to help will feel more real than a unicorn who just wants to help 'cause that's what your story needs at the moment.

The more there is to find, the more the audience will find ... and generally, the more they'll feel satisfied by your story.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Q. I've written a TV pilot, but I don't know anyone in TV. I'm considering getting a screenplay evaluation, but am I wasting my time and money?
If you're hoping the screenplay evaluation will get you to a salable screenplay, you might be. Your first birch bark canoe probably won't survive the rapids. No one wins their first tennis tournament. It takes a lot of screenplays to get to the point where you know what you're doing.

Before you hire a screenplay evaluation, have you read my book on TV writing? I'm embarrassed to toot my own horn, but I wrote Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box as a way of putting a pretty red wrapper around most of what I know about TV. If you haven't read any TV writing books, then why pay someone to critique your screenplay for a lot of money when you can read most of the same advice in a ten dollar book?

It's tough not knowing anyone in the business. That's why people go to film school. UCLA, USC, AFI, NYU, and Columbia, are all excellent. I've also blogged about fellowships and internships. Check out those posts.

In Canada there is a lot of support for newbies. The Canadian Film Centre has a kickass program. I also hear good things about the National Screen Institute.

If you can't take the time off to go to school, try forming a writing group over the Internet; or find some non-writing readers whose opinion you value -- maybe a few people who post intelligently to the Television Without Pity forums. There's no reason not to try to get your first script to agents, but it may be many scripts down the road before your scripts get you out of the house. Until then, you need intelligent feedback.

There are always ways in. I write about many of them in my two books, so I won't go into detail here. What they have in common is you need to leave your shame at the door, and be willing to work hard for almost nothing until you're worth hiring. If you really love film or tv, that will still be hard, but not as hard as walking away.

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Monday, September 18, 2006

Tomorrow be International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Ye be forewarned, mateys.

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DMc is thrilled that Aaron Sorkin is making a series about how television could be great instead of stupid.

To repeat and enlarge on my comments there: sure, but it's self-congratulatory where it should be challenging. It's hard to write a smart TV show. It's not that hard to write a show about characters who write smart TV, if you don't actually show any of the TV that they write. We never saw Matt's supposedly brilliant "Crazy Christians" sketch (dumb title), only the dumb "Peripheral Vision Man" one. The only proof we have that Matt is a good writer is: we see him accepting an award for his writing. That's cheating.

Denis is far, far wittier off the cuff than Matt Albie, scripted.

What part of the Studio 60 pilot SURPRISES you? What part is audacious? What pushes the envelope? What makes it more than a fired showrunner's fantasy of being handed his show back?

I'm hoping that the show, once it gets past its pilot, does push the envelope. Or at least, pulls us in more. I want to see Jordan behave like a wily and tough and dangerous network exec, instead of a smarmy, well-meaning, wussy one. I want to see Matt and Dan show us what brilliant writing and directing looks like when it happens, rather than just hearing that they are brilliant. I want the episodes to break the mold, because that's what Sorkin is promising the show-within-the-show will do.

Firefly breaks the mold. Breaks the conventions. Turns four act structure on its head. Let's see if Sorkin can top the Joss.

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Just watched it on CTV. No spoilers, but I'm torn about this show. I want to love it. I know, you probably loved it. Or will love it. (I guess it doesn't air in the States till tomorrow, heh). But I'm comparing it to The West Wing and I just can't get that wrapped up in whether two characters playing halves of Aaron Sorkin's brain succeed in turning around a live sketch comedy show. As compared with, say, resolving big political issues. I know that's not fair. But it's one of the reasons I never warmed to Sports Night. That, and the dumb laugh track.

It was an odd pilot. It felt like a pre-pilot. The series is going to be about two guys running a sketch comedy show, and this episode is not about that. It has all the flaws of a premise pilot. There are too many scenes that exist only to tell us who the characters are and why they're hot stuff. And what hangs in the balance is something we already know, because there wouldnt be a series if the outcome went other way. In a way, it's all schmuck bait.

Here's a useful test. Suppose you have an outcome you want the audience to get worried about. Ask yourself if the audience can really believe it's going to go the other way. If we don't believe the sword can really slice through the string, it's not the sword of Damocles.

But, it's Sorkin, so I'll keep watching.

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Q. A producer has asked me to write a show bible and pilot script for a new drama show next year.
Congratulations.

However, you should understand what this means: "A producer has asked me to write a show bible and pilot script for a new drama show he would like to put on the air next year." Without a show bible and pilot script, the network has nothing to approve. Therefore nothing has been approved. No network approves an idea.
Q. The producer has asked me for a pilot script, treatment and character bible by this Friday (Sept 22).
Your producer is out of his mind. No one can do good work in that amount of time. The shortest I would agree to do a pilot script would be three weeks. I'd spend a week figuring out what the pilot should be and breaking it down. A week writing. A week rewriting. But honestly, I'd rather spend two weeks figuring out the show, a week figuring out the pilot, a week writing, and two weeks rewriting. That would be a nice tight schedule.
Q. Firstly, should I be doing this for free?
Of course not. It is one thing to write a pilot script of your own for free. US networks generally want to see a pilot, not a bible. If you want to option a show, you'll have to write a pilot.

In this case, though, your producer is attempting to get you so excited about his SHOW WHICH IS GOING ON THE AIR NEXT YEAR!!!!!! that you'll write for free.

What has really happened, I believe, is that he mentioned an idea to someone at the network. The network person said, "Yeah, I'm intrigued. I'm supposed to talk with [some other guy] on Friday. Can you get me something by then?"

Now your producer wants you to front the work on the off chance the network likes it. It's no skin off his nose if they don't. He only has to spend an hour or so reading whatever you wrote. (If he reads it at all!)

Typical rates in Canada might be $5,000-$10,000 for a pitch bible (plus guarantees of writing a certain number of scripts if any are commissioned, a possible royalty, right of first refusal to write an MOW, etc.). An hour pilot is minimum about $18,000. Minimum rates in the States are, say, two or three times that. (Maximums -- well, I shudder to think what it would cost to hire Aaron Sorkin to create a show based on someone else's idea. A million bucks? Five? Plus royalties, and he's guaranteed to be the showrunner with an appropriate compensation package?)

Note that your producer is not at the top of his craft. A good producer would never turn in something rushed. It makes him look amateurish. Have you checked out this guy's credits?
Q. For the treatment and character bible, do I need to include every storyline and dramatic arc for the full season?
I think a good pitch bible needs about ten springboards to show the kind of stories you'll be telling, the richness of the narrative vein you're mining, and the range of stories you might have. I wouldn't go much beyond that. Your springboards will all change as you create the show, anyway.

NEVER get too excited about anything a producer says unless it involves paying you money prior to commencement of writing services. It costs them nothing to talk.

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Have three kids dueling with lightsabers on the Playstation right behind you? Want to get some work done anyway? I recommend noise cancelling headphones. This is considered more appropriate than gagging them. Or so I'm told.

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Friday, September 15, 2006

Bon Cop / Bad Cop has passed previous Quebec champ Seraphin to become all-time Quebec box office champion, raking in $10.3 million so far -- only $1.3 mil in Rest of Canada, in spite of a belated marketing campaign there. This puts it on track to pass the $11.2 million Porky's made in 1982. (Let's not adjust for inflation, k?)

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Mark Hand reminds me that Canadians interested in breaking into TV should check out the National Screen Institute's Totally Television program, in spite of its embarrassing name:
NSI Totally Television is an innovative 10-month professional development program that meets the industry need for talented writers and producers with the ability to create and produce a television series that draws Canadian audiences. Each year up to six writer/producer teams are selected to fine-tune their ideas and work towards landing a development deal with a broadcaster.
As with all these programs, there is no reason to ignore this even if you are already an established writer who knows the biz who wants another leg up.

The workshop takes place in Toronto, and they put you up in a hotel. [Thanks for the clarification, Craig!]

The NSI has a bunch of other programs you should check out, too.

Readers outside Canada: feel free to write in with any helpful programs you know about in your country, and I'll post those too.

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

... Now, that's a cage match I'd like to see.

Q. A network has asked to read our two-page tv show pitch, but they want it sent in by an agent or a lawyer. We don't have an agent yet, and we're not sure we have good enough samples to get one yet. Should we hire an entertainment lawyer?
If you can get an agent, get an agent. Agents are better than lawyers because they're free and they can come up with other places to sell your material or you.

On the other hand you can probably hire an entertainment lawyer with a couple of phone calls. Generally an agent won't rep you unless they've read your stuff -- their credibility is on the line with every submission.

On the other other hand, an entertainment lawyer can run you serious dollars. And the likelihood that your pitch, without a champion attached, will go anywhere, is tiny. Not try to discourage, it's just the odds.

If it's just for this submission, you might be able to get away with having a friend who is a lawyer send the submission in on his or her letterhead.

Networks insist on you being represented because (a) it means you're not a complete nutbar and (b) if you have problems with them, they can refer you to your representative, who won't bug them as much as you will.

The network will almost certainly ask you to sign a release form that pretty much says that if they want to steal your idea, they can. I hate those. I've signed them. It is unconscionable, but it is the biz. Networks are not really in the habit of stealing ideas. They just don't want you to sue them when Tom Fontana brings them the exact same idea, and they go with Tom.

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Toronto (September 13, 2006)
Canada wakes up in Dog River this coming Monday, September 18 when eight radio stations from across the country broadcast live from the set of Corner Gas in advance of the series' season premiere that night on CTV. It is the latest in a series of innovative marketing outreach campaigns by CTV that have contributed to Corner Gas becoming Canada's favourite homegrown TV program and Number 1 comedy series.
TV, Eh?
And this, folks, is the kind of attitude that makes Corner Gas a successful show. It is not enough to make a popular show. You have to let people know it's there.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

As the Times puts it, LonelyGirl ... wasn't.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

I see that the August 2006 issue of Writer's Digest has a nice review of Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box on page 18. Thanks for the heads-up, Kody!

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According to the tech support people at Linksys I just talked to, the only way to upgrade the firmware of my Linksys WRT54G router is through a Windows XP computer. If you don't have access to a Windows XP computer, they will not help you.

If you have a Mac, I strongly recommend you not buy Linksys products, as apparently they do not support the Mac platform.

UPDATE: The Linksys tech support woman didn't know what she was talking about. See comments below.

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Monday, September 11, 2006

My festival weekend was, in the end, all I hoped it would be. I was
not expecting to seal any deals. Just do the part of my job that is
networking. I went to the three main parties plus one bonus party. I
hung out with my writing cronies (and their cronies) and heard the
kind of gossip about producers and networks that I never get to hear
in Montreal. I had meetings with producers I'm in negotiations with,
and met more producers who want to see my stuff -- and I fired off
PDF's of my material to those very same producers the moment I got
back to my friend Shelley's place. I even managed to get a meeting
with a smart and wily network exec. Which went rather well, I
thought. Nice to chat with people who want to work with you.

Still I am oh so happy to be on a train back home. I miss my family.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

WC Dixon has a provocative guest post by an experienced Canadian screenwriter fed up with the Canadian system. Via DMc.

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Saturday, September 09, 2006

This Times article lists all the important new premieres. Set your TiVos now!

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Today was the Telefilm party, where DMc and I actually got to eat dead things on sticks. They throw the Telefilm party at the Ultra Supper Club, which is far too small for the crowd. So you wind up having to call people on their cell phones to see if they're still at the party, and if so, where. All within an area about fifty feet by fifty feet.

Best food item: grilled steak kebabs

Fortunately the Ultra Supper Club did not crank the music as loud as it could possibly go. Probably they would have if their rooftop patio weren't open to the skies.

I did get to chat with some of my favorite network execs, and set up a crucial meeting for early next week. And meet many new and interesting producers. So it was not all about the free food.

Kelly Rowan was there. (Kirsten, from The OC.) Kelly Rowan is tiny. It's funny: having worked in the biz this long, I have developed a positive aversion to socializing with actors. They are charismatic people, of course, so one has an urge to talk to them. But I can't think what I could possibly say to a successful TV actor like Ms. Rowan, or ask her, that would interest either of us. The same goes a fortiori for emerging talent. At the party the other night I was chatting with an agent friend of mine, a development guy I didn't know, and two actresses. Oh, I suppose they must have been attractive; that's what actresses do. I talked to the development guy.

It must be fairly crushing to be the cutest girl in your class, and then become an actress, and have guys largely ignore you at parties.

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CHUM Schmooze : loud.

CHUM Schmooze after it started pouring and everyone had to congregate under the tents: loud, with walla.

Fido party at Drake hotel: unbelievably loud.

Will someone tell me why the music is so loud at events that exist so people can schmooze?

Best food item: tandoori chicken wrap.

Second best: chipotle caramel popcorn.

Next year I'm bringing: ear plugs.

(Um ... films? People are seeing films?)

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Q. A student at the USC Stark Program in Producing wants me to write her a thesis film. Is it worth doing?
The USC producer program is probably the top program in North America, and of all the schools, USC is the most connected to show business. That's where the industry kids go. That means that the right sort of people see the USC thesis films. There is a lot to be said for having your name on a USC thesis film. Depending on where you are in your career, this could be good exposure for you ... I say go for it.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

[POLITICS] Editor and Publisher, the trade publication, dissects ABC's "docudrama" about 9/11. According to ABC, Bill Clinton pulled the plug on operations to kill Osama Bin Laden (in real life, he sicced a cruise missile on OBL and nearly took him out). And, needless to say, George Bush was definitely not listening to "The Pet Goat" for seven minutes after he was told the first tower had been hit.

The network's response, of course, has been that it's a docudrama, so it doesn't have to match the 9/11 Commission's findings. Or the facts. That would explain, of course, why they have only shown the miniseries to conservative mouthpieces like Rush Limbaugh, and not the actual participants in the events. They're like the president: they don't need to know what actually happened. That would be giving in to the terrorists. And their appeasers.

One wonders why we have to keep hearing about the "liberal media" when ABC is putting Bush propaganda on the air.

The propudrama airs on Sept. 10 and 11, so there is still time, if you are so inclined, to ask ABC to postpone the airing until they can get their facts straight.

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So, what are you looking forward to this tv premiere season? Aside from Studio 60, of course?

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Every now and then I'm asked when it's too late for someone to start in show business.

It's not really my place to tell anyone it's too late. But I should add a few caveats.

It is possible to write a spec feature script that gets bought. You can do that at any age. You will probably have to write at least ten spec scripts before you're writing well enough to sell your script. But no one cares how long it took you to write those ten scripts. I am not sure that young writers have any advantage in the spec feature department, except that as one gets older one gets less and less interested in pirates, by and large, and more interested in how families deal with pain. Studio execs would by and large rather buy a movie about pirates; movies about pain are a smaller market.

What's not so likely is getting into the business of being a pro writer. Particularly not a pro tv writer. Breaking in to TV requires a lot of free work writing specs; and they have to be up to date, so you can't take six months to write one. Then, if you break in, you're on staff working 14 hour days plus weekends. Unless you are prepared to structure your life to achieve your primary and dominating goal of working in TV, you probably won't. It is not quite so hard on your lifestyle to be a pro feature writer; they get more time to do their job. But you are relatively unlikely to get those jobs unless you're around, meeting producers, taking meetings; and you usually have to make a big spec sale in order to get on the shortlist.

So: can you break into TV at thirty? Yes. But it helps if you are just coming out of a childless divorce, and you're ready to move to LA at a moment's notice. If you've got young kids, and live in the same town as your parents, and love your day job, you will probably have to give up too much to do what you need to do to break in. It is probably only going to happen if you suddenly realized that you should never have given up your childhood dream of writing for the screen, and you are now ready to risk everything.

You cannot get into showbiz and expect to retain some level of comfort. You may, if you are successful, achieve a level of comfort. But you have to be willing to sacrifice it again.

Can you truly say you're willing to do that? And if so, why didn't you do it when you were 20? You need convincing answers to those questions, or you may be wasting your time.

If your goal is to get something on screen, you might well think about writing a bestselling novel. Books aren't easy to get published, but they're a hell of a lot easier than getting your movie made. I don't know how many novels come out every year, but let's say it's 50,000. There are, say, 200 theatrical movies that come out per year, and most of those are commissioned. The math speaks for itself.

Thing is, people think it's easier to write a feature than a novel. It's not particularly easier. Screenplays just look easier because they have fewer words, and perhaps because it's less work to watch a movie than to read a book. But many first time writers think they've written a wonderful screenplay when they have, in fact, written a bad screenplay. The form is less obvious; it has more hidden requirements. It is harder to learn to read a screenplay than to read a novel. Don't think that because you can imagine a wonderful movie in your head means you are one step away to being able to write a competent screenplay.

On the other hand, if what you want to do is write scripts in order to better appreciate the movies you're seeing, in the way that ballet lessons, I am told, help you appreciate ballet, or if you want to shoot your own shorts just for fun, or to put on YouTube, then God bless you, go for it. Just be clear what your real goal is, and what the odds are against you.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

My interview with CKUT's Mahalia Verna is up, and you can listen to it on the CKUT website. It's dated September 4, and it starts about 49 minutes into hour 1 or so, and continues a ways into hour 2.

UPDATE: You can also listen to it right here, neatly trimmed for your convenience.

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Much mirth be ther in ye blog yclept Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog. An thou wilt, cast thine een upon Serpentes upon a Shippe.

Via 101.

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Q. A producer wants to me to write something, but I'm afraid it will step on a spec I wrote.
Negotiations don't have to be zero sum. The key is understanding what you most want and what the other person can give away without losing anything. For example, I reserve the print rights to my stuff when I option it. The print rights aren't worth much until a film or tv series is made, so the producer isn't going to fight too hard to keep them. (A studio might, for reasons of precedent.) Or, let's say you're optioning a TV show idea. You probably can't keep the movie rights for yourself. Not owning the feature rights would cut into a producer's upside something fierce. But, it will not cost the producer anything if you insist on writing the first draft of any eventual feature. Someone is going to have to write the first draft, and it might as well be you. After all, if they don't like it, they can always throw out your draft. If you're talking about a big budget feature, they may decide to hire Babaloo Mandel to rewrite for a million bucks. But in that case the lousy sixty g's they pay you for the contractual first draft won't significantly impact their bottom line. So I always ask for right of first refusal to write any feature based on a tv show I'm optioning.

As a writer, your goal is to get paid to write stuff. You don't need to own it. You just want to get paid to write it, and you want your name on it. Negotiate your deals so they get what they need and you get what you need.

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The Montreal Film Group, in coordination with the WGC, is hosting a 5 à 7 get-together this evening at the Café des Éclusiers at the bottom of McGill Street in Montreal; the cafe is in the park next to the sluice gates of the canal (hence the name). Admission is $7; all are welcome.

Just thought you might want to know.

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Monday, September 04, 2006

Hunter and I went to see Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men's Chest last night, and liked it so much we rented the first movie tonight.

I feel there is one moment where my credibility is stretched too far. Oddly, it is not anything to do with cursed Aztec gold or undead pirates. It is when Commodore Norrington lets Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, and his beloved Elizabeth all disappear when he had all of them in the palm of his hand.

It seems out of character.

The undead pirates are all true to themselves. So is Jack Sparrow, in his loose way. Norrington is true to himself until the very end, when he does something that makes very little sense, I feel.

A film has to be consistent within the world it creates. It's fine if it creates a world that is different from the one we live in. But it has to stay true to its school.

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I really have to pay more attention to the gravy train. A new friend of mine is participating in one of the many "Industry Initiatives" at the Toronto International Film Festival. I am not sure why she needs to -- she's already produced a film. But Canada supports its filmmakers with a bewildering array of organizations, grants, subsidies and other programs. They're not restricted to newbies, either. Some are explicitly for experienced filmmakers. You're a fool if you don't take advantage of them when you have the time. I'm kicking myself I didn't sign up for any of these.

One might well wonder why, if we have so much support, we're not getting more success in our film industry. Part of the problem, I think, is the lack of money for marketing. People just don't go to see movies if they don't see ads for them.

But I would also argue that with L.A. on our doorstep, if we didn't have all the support, we might well not have any local industry. The alternative to support isn't a more vibrant, populist, commercially-driven business. The alternative is, I think, what Ohio or Illinois have: no movie industry. Without the support, why would any filmmaker stay here? Why not just go to LA and try to make it there?

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Sunday, September 03, 2006

I'm pretty she'll be airing [the interview] tomorrow. It's from 7 to 9am, and she usually broadcasts my pieces between 7:30am and 8:30am
Ack. Well, if you happen to be up at that hour, and you're in Montreal, check out CKUT 90.3 FM. If you don't and you're not, it should be archived soon enough.

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I've been playing a lot of poker on the computer lately. Poker teaches all sorts of interesting lessons for life and story telling. For example, if you only play the best hands, you will lose -- because people will realize you're only playing value hands, and they'll fold on you. And, you'll get beat often enough by some joker who's playing loose and aggressive, and draws out on you at the river. To win a tournament, you'll almost always have to play some hands loose. Once the blinds get big enough, you are practically forced to play some hands loose or the blinds will bleed you to death. But (especially in limit poker) it's hard to bluff your way to a win. You want to bluff with something you might be able to draw out on.

You may draw your own conclusions for plotting.

I also HIGHLY RECOMMEND taking up poker for anyone who does not feel completely confident in negotiations. The most obvious lesson is that you will make more money if you're willing to turn down some jobs than if you are not. Sure, you'll lose some jobs, but you'll get paid more for the other ones. But the elaborate dance of raises and calls and folds you learn in poker will give you a whole set of intellectual and emotional tools for handling the negotiation dance.

(This doesn't apply to absolute beginners who need to take any job just to break in and meet people; but it applies to anyone who is actually being dealt some cards to play with on a regular basis.)

Not to mention, poker is a good excuse to invite show business people over to your house. They might not give you a meeting, but they'll come to drink whiskey and gamble.

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I'm into my third pass on The Alternative now. Now I am rereading my work every day, to see how it flows. I read through until I bump on something, and then I try to fix it. Could be something small -- a line, or the way a scene flows. Could be something big. For example, Jay and Vanessa's courtship isn't working. She was supposed to be too passive, though she really liked him; he was supposed to be too square. I let my love of the banter run away from me and he didn't come out that square. Or at least, it's not clear that squareness is supposed to be his problem. She's passive in some scenes but not in others. More importantly, it is not that much fun to watch someone be passive. It's almost always more amusing to watch someone be actively self-defeating.

I'm also struggling with page count. It's a little obsession of mine. It's easy to know if you've managed to knock off a couple pages; everything else is subjective and therefore much harder. The script is clocking in at 115 which I feel is long for a romantic comedy. When Harry Met Sally is 96 minutes long. Annie Hall is 93 minutes long. That's the minimum length of a straight-to-DVD movie (right, Bill?).

I'm playing a little looser with the plot than I would have in the past. For example, the story takes an eight minute detour to explore one of the supporting characters, just because it feels interesting and amusing to me. In the past people have felt that my plots are too straightforward. I'm allowing myself to be a little less predictable. The plot might lose some forward momentum, but it might gain some jazz.

Or, I might wind up having to cut the last scene of the detour.

Up'n'at'em...

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Saturday, September 02, 2006

I had a very nice interview with Mahalia Verna of CKUT radio. It's so nice when interviewers have read, and got, the book. Stay tuned for info on when it airs, and I'll also throw in a link to the mp3 when it goes up.

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